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UU-UNO Director’s Letter

Bruce Knotts

June 2013

We’ve had an eventful June here at the UU-UNO! Below, I’m sharing with you a few of the highlights:

Torture and Rescue


I met Imam Baba Leigh in 2003 soon after my arrival as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Gambia. The day before, I told the press that, under the current government, improvements had been made in the national economy. The next day, I met Baba Leigh and he immediately admonished me about my comments to the press. I knew instantly that I wanted this man as my friend, because he would always tell me his understanding of the truth. I learned he was the only independent Imam in Gambia. The rest did the bidding of Yahya Jammeh, president of the country, who took power in a 1994 military coup d'etat.

Early in 2012, I learned that Yahya Jammeh's government had arrested over 20 gay men and ordered all the Christian and Muslim clergy in the country to preach sermons against homosexuality. All complied, except Imam Leigh. To be clear, Imam Leigh continues to feel that homosexuality is a sin, but he refuses to target gays, viewing their sin as equivalent to any other. Later in the year, Yahya Jammeh started executing prisoners in his jails (many of whom were there for political reasons). Imam Leigh responded by preaching sermons against the death penalty. On December 5th, 2012, agents of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency took Imam Leigh to a secret location and began torturing him, never charging him with any wrong doing nor granting him access to his family or legal representation. 

I learned of this almost immediately and, even though it was after 5pm, went one floor downstairs to the Amnesty International UN Office and asked for their help. They promptly began working for his freedom, aided by their London Office and Dakar, Senegal investigator. I called every mission and every office I knew to get Imam Leigh released. 

In the end, after 5 months of torture, the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union demanded Imam Leigh's liberation, and he was released. With help from many sources, Imam Leigh is now in New York City, seeing medical professionals and restoring his health. 

On Friday, June 28th, we visited the Amnesty International UN office just below the UU-UNO at the Church Center Building to thank them for their amazing work. Then they invited us to a high level panel discussion at the UN regarding the death penalty, where UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon gave the keynote address. The meeting was chaired by UN Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic. Imam Leigh got a chance to tell his story about his detention without charge and subsequent torture. He explained that while the Holy Quran says, "A Life for a Life," it also says that Allah will reward forgiveness. Imam Leigh also said that Islamic jurisprudence calls for compensation to be paid to the family of the victim, and concluded that the benefits of forgiveness outweigh revenge.  

As the Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights, I hope that we can organize meetings and opportunities for Imam Leigh to talk about his experiences and his view of Islam as a humane and tolerant religion. 

Climate Action Teams (CATs)

The UU-UNO has launched an important initiative together with its Climate Change Task Force. We are in the process of organizing Climate Action Teams (CAT). Time is running out and we must take steps to preserve our environment before it is too late. President Obama's recent marks point the way. Here in the US, we must give the President and his colleagues the political backing they need to fight global warming, protecting both this and future generations. We are reaching out to the UU Ministry of Earth and the UU Green Sanctuary Movement to coordinate our efforts. We, along with our partners, will propose local initiatives you can take to help our environment. The UU-UNO wants you to engage both the US and Canadian governments to exercise strong leadership on the international level and at the United Nations to ensure global action on this critical issue. The CAT program will help UUs to network together and create a larger UU voice to work to mitigate Climate Change. 

I often tell people that the United States was key in designing the UN and we designed it to work with the USA in a leadership role. I often hear complaints about the UN not working well. It actually works better than most people realize and it is working better now than in the recent past, because the US and partner countries including Canada, have an administrations that pay their dues and engage with the most important of world bodies. Where we have exercised leadership on human rights, including sexual orientation/gender identity human rights, the global community has chalked up enormous success. U.S. leadership in the area of climate change needs to be more robust than it is. The future of our planet depends on it. And it is up to you to organize to tell your senators, representatives and President (or Prime Minister) that the USA and Canada must take a strong leadership position on climate change issues. 

Download our CAT brochure here! 


Women's Rights

We are working with our closest advisors, both on the UU-UNO Advisory Board and other advisors, such as Dr. Constance Baker, a former UU-UNO Board member and a member of the UUA's President's Council, to ramp up our advocacy for women's rights. We have begun showing an abbreviated version of the PBS documentary, Half the Sky, to inform UUs of the deteriorating condition of women around the world. Women continue to work hard for less pay. Their education is neglected in favor of boys. Their health is neglected in extreme ways which cause permanent and grotesque damage, consigning women to a living hell outcast from society. Part of what I am referring to are fistulas, female genital mutilation and the harm that this can cause, abuse from husbands and other men, a total lack of appropriate pre-natal and post-natal health care, and more. Women who have so much to contribute find their lives wasted due to neglect, abuse and trafficking. We have brought LGBTQ rights out of the shadows of the UN into the bright light of day. We are working on plans to do the same for women's issues. One would think that in this day, such attention would not be needed. Unfortunately, it is. The new UN agency, UN Women, is grossly underfunded. The issues I have touched upon above are not well-known nor understood. That is what the UU-UNO does best at the UN. We take the hidden and the little understood and bring it to light. 

Indigenous Peoples Rights 2014

Did you know that, around the world, indigenous peoples do not have clear ownership of their land? That they have only limited rights of self-determination? That the marginal land that governments have been consigned to is now subjected to polluting and health-destroying extractive mining? Did you know that this all began with a Papal Bull in 1493 (the year after Columbus 'discovered' America)? This Papal Bull of 1493 gave the legal underpinning for the theft of all the land, resources, and even the bodies of indigenous peoples (slavery) and has been endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court with implications which last to this very day. There is finally a global response: The United Nations International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

All this and more will be the topic of the 2014 Spring Seminar, from April 3rd-5th. (Youth from 14-18 will arrive on April 2nd). Download the 2014 Spring Semianr Save the Date flyer here. Over the past decades, the UU-UNO has perfected these compelling seminars, each one surpassing the one before. Recent seminars have covered: 2007 Human Trafficking, 2008 Building a Culture of Peace, 2009 Faith and Human Rights, 2010 Climate Change, 2011 Empowering Women for a Better World, 2012 Race and Immigration, and 2013 Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity Human Rights. 

The 2014 Seminar will be keynoted by Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Peter Morales and Canadian Unitarian Council Executive Director Vyda Ng. We are working on obtaining outstanding indigenous speakers from Guatemala, Canada, the United States, Finland, India and more. Save, fundraise, and mark your calendars for this seminar! Make sure that you are with us at the United Nations from April 3-5, 2014. 



General Assembly 2013

At this year's GA, the UU-UNO hosted a very successful Envoy Breakfast with many more people showing up than expected. At the Envoy Breakfast we honored hard work and dedication. Envoys got the chance to converse about their work and get feedback from both the UU-UNO and fellow Envoys. It was a joyful and delicious event!

We also hosted a reception which featured this year's Dana Greeley Sermon Award winner, UU seminarian Dylan Debelis. Dylan's sermon on race and immigration (the seminar topic of 2012) was forceful, compelling, informative and inspiring. It challenged our faith to move forward to deal with the national tragedy of race and immigration. To learn more about our Dana Greeley Award, click here

Our amazing Envoy Coordinator, Kamila Jacob, presided over the Blue Ribbon Award presentations. She distributed more Blue Ribbon Awards than in any other previous year. What does your congregation need to do to win this prestigious award? 

1. Host a UN Sunday event.

2. Ensure that you have an active congregational envoy/envoy committee/youth envoy at your congregation.

3. Make a congregational contribution to the UU-UNO.

4. Ensure that 5% of your congregational members donate to the UU-UNO. 

Simple, but it means so much. It signifies that you and your congregation are engaged in the work of the UU-UNO and ensuring that work's success with your support. 

Click here to learn more about becoming a Blue Ribbon Congregation!

God Loves Uganda 

The UU-UNO hosted another of its groundbreaking sexual orientation/gender identity human rights events. This one began with a view of the very compelling film: God Loves Uganda. After the film, we put together an amazing interfaith panel to discuss homophobia and its exportation. The panel included Imam Daayiee Abdullah, Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, UCC Minister Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, Pentecostal Pastor Joseph Tolton and UUA International Resources Director Rev. Eric Cherry. Each deplored homophobia and its exportation from the perspective of their Holy Scriptures and beliefs. To read more about the event, click here to read our UUA International blog post. If you want to bring this film to your congregation, please contact us and we will help you set it up. 

End of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)

The UU-UNO joined other New Yorkers in celebrating the end of DOMA. The Supreme Court ruling grants marriage equality for gay couples in states that have legalized same-sex marriages. Gay couples in other states, however, remain unrecognized by both state and federal governments. The uneven nature of marriage equality endangers those who move or travel from a marriage equality state to one without equal protections of the law. Marriage is not the end of the road. It is important to ensure equal access to employment, housing, education, and health care for everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. While we celebrated with elation in New York, the pain of inequality is harder to tolerate for those who were not covered by the ruling. There is much to do to ensure that everyone everywhere can enjoy a safe and dignified life. The UU-UNO will continue to focus on the UN and global rights. We are especially concerned over the recent passage of terrible homophobic laws in Russia. This takes the fight for SOGI rights to a new level. We are no longer dealing with small African or marginalized Islamic countries, but with one of the world's most powerful, richest, and most influential nations: Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Our work is far from over. However, for a moment, the United States celebrated an amazing victory. In June 2013, Canadians celebrated the 10th anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriages. 

If you have questions or concerns, please write us at unitednations@uua.org.

To support this important work please visit https://giving.uua.org/UU-UNO

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